Since the beginning of time, humans have relied on gemstones. For some, it was a matter of tools and crafts as we can witness in Maori jade artifacts. Others saw the beauty in stones and made many objects of art. A lesser known aspect of gemstones is their use in pigments. Virtually every continent in the world has at least one culture that in the past used gemstones for painting, dyes, or pigments. Let’s examine some of these cultures and peoples of the past.
American Indians have used pigments for a long time. Hematite, malachite, azurite, turquoise, selenite, and more were ground and crushed to make pigments that could be used as paint. While the time at which different people and tribes used mineral paint will vary, it is quite literally an ancient practice at the very least.
The Pueblo and Navajo people in the Southwest United States are some of the most well-known in contemporary American culture. Their material culture, which is fascinating and diverse, involves the use of gemstones for paints and pigments. The Keres People adopted mineral paint for pottery. The indigenous populations of British Columbia reportedly used malachite to make dyes and pigments.
North Americans don’t have a monopoly on mineral paint. The Aztec and Maya used ground and crushed minerals for pigments much like their northern counterparts.
The first Americans made mineral pigments from hematite and limonite. The former is well-known for its metallic sheen and ferrous properties. The latter is a common iron-oxide mineral. By crushing and mixing the two minerals, American Indians made red pigments. The pigment was mixed with water or an organic binding agent to create a fully fledged paint. The earliest brushes varied widely. Some were simply feathers. Others were just sticks or rudimentary drawing instruments. Or, it was a bundle of hairs. The pigment was used extensively in rock art, body paint, and pottery paint.
Paint has the tendency to fade, especially when exposed to sunlight. The question of how the most rudimentary form of art can last for so long has been answered. The paint first stains the rock when applied. Next, as time passes, the water/agent mixed with the pigment evaporates or is subject to weathering. And finally, when the water/agent is gone, only pigment and rock remain. This is not, however, an irreversible process. The paint does fade over time due to many factors. In the natural processes of the world, rain will leach out the minerals of the rock and leave a “film” behind. This film obscures the pigment on the rock, contributing to its “fading.”
Africa is home to many of the earliest developments. Hieroglyphics, one of the earliest forms of writing and some of the earliest ferrous metallurgy (working iron) by the Nok are just two major examples. Africa also has the first mineral pigments in the world. Like the American Indians, the earliest people crushed hematite and limonite (along with specularite in this case) to make pigment.
The emergence of pigments and hafted tools are sometimes seen in relation to one another. The reason for this is because the pigments could be used as rudimentary glue in addition to paint. Like the American Indians, the first Africans used “crayons” to draw cave art.
European artists also used a variety of pigments when it came to painting. Pigments such as Sienna were used since ancient Roman times and was derived from limonite. Blue is a lovely color that many wanted to use in their paintings, especially those featuring the sky or water. Unfortunately, a good blue was hard to come by. Azurite and lapis lazuli were excellent choices, but they were extremely expensive. Lapis especially could put a hole in a wallet because of the intense process necessary to produce it; the end result, however, was the much prized ultramarine color. Since ultramarine was so costly to make, it was reserved for important figures, mainly that of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Thus, the Lapis Lazuli's meaning was rather deeply connected to religious imagery at times.
Asia is a large continent and is home to many cultures, people, and countries. To cover even a fraction of mineral paint cultures is out of this blog’s scope. Instead, we will cover the largest and most studied cultures.
China has one of the richest histories on the planet. The history of its paint, dyes, and pigments is no different. We will provide Chinese words, but not with tone indicators for the simple reason that the average reader is not likely to understand what the tone indictors mean.
Pigments, or yianlao (颜料) have a significant place in the culture of China due to the significance of the arts and silk. Cinnabar or chensha (郴砂) for instance, is one of the most important minerals for dyes in China. The word given is only one of the many words for it. Zhusha (朱砂) and dansha (丹砂) are two additional words used to describe cinnabar. Sha means “sand”. Zhu and dan mean “red”, chen refers to Chenzhou. Thus zhusha and dansha mean “red sand” while chensha means “sand of Chenzhou.”
Color in Chinese painting has a turbulent history. Pigments and color painting were prominent until the end of the Song Dynasty. From Yuan until recent times, monochrome ink painting was the dominant style.
Malachite, which also goes by many names, is important for the green pigment. The color is called shilu (石緑) in a generic sense, which means “stone green.” Malachite itself is called kongque shi (孔雀石). This literally means “peacock stone.”
Azurite does not have such an artistic name. It is lan tong kuang (蓝铜矿) which translate to something like “blue copper ore.”It is also called shiqing (石青) which is just a blue stone. Shiqing (with the exact same characters no less) can also a name.
The Mughals and other Indians made paintings that, like the Chinese, relied heavily on mineral pigments. Unlike their Persian contemporaries, the Mughals did not have as much to work with. Minerals had to be imported or were hard to come by superior paper was virtually impossible to get. Akbar, a patron of the arts, hired painters, many of whom were Persian.
The minerals used were often what you would expect: lapis lazuli for blue and malachite for green, but mercury and arsenic saw use in the Mughal and Rajput paintings too. Organic ingredients like lac (the resin secreted by some insects), vegetables, and gaogoli (supposedly made with cow urine) were used too.
Although limited in choice and restricted by costs, the Mughals managed to produce fascinating works of art.
Persia had much more to work with for pigments and painting. Azurite, cobalt, iron oxide, turquoise, and more, the Persians practically had it all. The region Persia inhabited was known to be rich in these types of materials since antiquity. In fact, the ancient residents of Elam did exactly what the Persians were doing more than a thousand years prior.
Although to most of us today gemstones and crystals are captivating décor or pieces in jewelry, they served a major function in the arts as pigments. Synthetic dyes and pigments are becoming more popular, but you can still grind lapis and use it as a pigment.
The historic function of minerals like malachite is incalculable. Its use spans literally thousands of years from the most rudimentary paintings like those on cave walls to the most sophisticated works of art in human history.
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